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Sensory Retraining After Stroke: How It Works & Exercises to Try

occupational therapist working with patient on sensory reeducation after stroke

After a stroke, is it possible to improve sensory issues like numbness or difficulty distinguishing temperature? Can patients that can’t feel anything at all regain sensation?

Fortunately, there is hope for regaining sensation after stroke. The process is called sensory retraining, or sensory reeducation, and this article offers explanations and treatment ideas.

First, we’ll help you understand the causes of sensory issues after stroke. Then, we’ll provide some sensory reeducation techniques to help promote recovery. Use the links below to jump straight to any section:

What Causes Sensory Issues After Stroke?

Sensory issues after stroke can take many different forms.

Some patients experience numbness on the affected side while others feel pins-and-needles sensation. In some cases, stroke survivors experience difficulty or poor sensation of hot and cold.

Sensory issues like these often occur after a stroke has damaged a part of the brain that helps regulate sensation. The brain works as a whole to interpret sensation, but some areas play a more specific role.

For example, the thalamus is responsible for relaying 98% of sensory input. Therefore, thalamic stroke survivors often experience numbness and sensory issues.

Patients who experience parietal lobe stroke or occipital lobe stroke may also experience sensory issues. These regions of the brain also help regulate sensation.

Now that you understand the cause of sensory issues, let’s discuss methods for sensory retraining.

How Sensory Retraining Works

stroke survivor touching her face and feeling the return of sensation after stroke

Through sensory reeducation, stroke survivors can retrain the brain to process sensory signals again.

Every stroke is different, therefore everyone’s recovery from sensory issues will also be different. Some patients experience spontaneous recovery where sensation returns on its own.

Other patients require therapy in order to maximize the chances of regaining sensation after stroke.

The best type of therapy that can help with sensory issues is sensory retraining exercises, like the ones you’ll find below. These exercises provide stimulation to the brain to help promote sensory processing.

Just as you can recover movement through physical therapy exercises, you can also recover sensation through sensory reeducation exercises. It requires consistency and repetition.

The brain responds to stimulation by rewiring itself based on the volume and frequency of your therapy. More exercise equals more stimulation and, as a result, more recovery.

Sensory Retraining Exercises to Try at Home

Sensory retraining exercises can help restore your brain’s ability to interpret your senses.

All of the exercises involve your sense of touch. Each time you touch something, you send sensory stimulation to your brain and encourage your brain to rewire itself.

Repeat each exercise at least 10 times and practice for about 10-15 minutes a day. Remember, repetition and consistency are most important for a speedy recovery from stroke.

Here are several effective sensory stimulation activities for stroke patients:

1. Tabletop Touch Therapy

Gather together objects with different textures and place them onto a table in front of you. Some examples of objects to grab are soft scarves, rough sandpaper, fluffy cotton balls, rough Velcro, and cool silverware.

Without looking at the objects, pick them up and feel them. Try to distinguish the difference between textures.

2. Texture Hunting

Fill a bowl with uncooked rice and bury different textured objects in it, like marbles, coins, Velcro strips, and cotton balls. Then reach your hand into the bowl and try to find the objects without looking.

If you can’t do this at first, keep trying. Repeated exposure to sensory retraining exercises helps keep the brain stimulated and promote recovery.

3. Texture Handling

person holding a soft towel to stimulate the brain with sensory reeducation exercises

Have someone place different objects in your hand with your eyes open. Sense how these objects feel.

Once you’ve gone through all the objects and observed how they feel, perform the exercise again with your eyes closed.

Put your focus into feeling each object to imprint the connection in your mind. Note any difference between how the objects feel with your eyes open, then closed.

4. Temperature Differentiation

This sensory reeducation exercise is particularly beneficial to stroke survivors who have trouble feeling heat or cold.

Soak a cloth in cold water and soak another cloth in warm (but not hot) water. Then, have someone place the cold cloth on your arm. Notice the sensation and if it is different than before the stroke.

After 30 seconds, have them switch the cold cloth with the warm cloth. Try to sense the difference in temperature.

Now, close your eyes. Have someone place one cloth on your arm and try to determine if you’re feeling heat or cold.

Repeat this exercise back and forth alternating from hot to cold.

If you don’t have someone to help you, then you can perform this exercise using your unaffected hand to place the cloths on your arm.

5. Sensory Locating

Close your eyes and have someone place their hand somewhere on your arm. Then, point to the area that you think they touched.

If you don’t point to the correct area, have them move your hand. Then, open your eyes to visually absorb the information.

Feedback like this helps retrain your brain. It’s like telling your brain, “I was not touched here, I was touched there.”

Repeat this exercise at least 10 times, preferably more!

Once you master this sensory retraining exercise, switch it up by having your assistant touch you with different textured objects, like a Q-tip or metal spoon.

Always keep your eyes closed during the exercise, and if you perform the exercise incorrectly, open your eyes once someone moves your finger to absorb the feedback.

Improving Your Ability to Feel

Sensory reeducation provides the brain with the stimulation it needs to recover sensation after stroke.

It emphasizes an important concept of stroke recovery: with enough repetition, there is increased potential for healing, including the return of sensation and feeling in the affected side.

Results may not come as fast as you want or expect, but when you perform the exercises, the brain will respond. Good luck on the road to recovery!

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